Many modern horror movies are constructed like games in which the players always lose. Here’s the board, here are the rules, here’s what happens when you take your turn: Cue the arterial spray. There’s a sameness to the act of playing a game, though, which is why these films feel more alike than unalike. Structurally, they’re a little dull. But some are potent. Although death is delivered at prescribed, metronomic intervals, the characters aren’t helped by knowing what’s coming, even if — as in the diabolically scary It Follows — they can see it moving toward them from a distance. They’re helpless to change their fates. The Final Destination movies — especially the second, which opens with a Rube Goldberg–like sequence of highway carnage — sought to dispel the idea that tragedy happens by chance and can be prevented by caution or foresight. One’s fate is in the hands of a demon with a genius for higher math and a zest for gore. (The Saw movies add insult to injury: He’s also a taunting moralist.) To live is to play. To play is to die.
All this game theory is an attempt to make a half-case for the would-be franchise starter Truth or Dare. (It’s alternately known as Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare in the hope that the name Blumhouse — for the family Blum — will become synonymous with horror. To me it sounds like a better name for a deli.) As reported, the game led to the title led to the script, which suggests how mechanically the film plays — though I should add that many decent horror movies began with nothing more than a title and a poster. Everything here, though, feels slotted into an existing template.
Here are the salient points. Lucy Hale (Pretty Little Liars’ big-eyed gamine, whose face does a lot of the movie’s work) plays do-gooder college senior Olivia, who is pressured to set aside Habitat for Humanity and go to Mexico with her promiscuous blonde best friend, Markie (Violett Beane), and their tanned, toned posse. On the last night, in search of more beer and tequila, they end up in a ruined monastery on a hill playing the game that will end up — as Olivia puts it — “playing them.”
The reason the game is demonically possessed and the nature of the demon are too demeaning to discuss. But the director and co-writer, Jeff Wadlow, has a good governing idea. Even in a social-media-soaked age in which kids “say anything,” there are truths that should never be uttered and dares that should never be dared. Olivia has one huge secret and several small but potentially devastating ones. So does everyone else. If not telling the truth — or successfully executing a dare — means death, telling the truth or doing the dare risks exploding the life one knows.
It’s too bad the secrets here would elicit yawns in a third-rate YA novel and that the most unusual revelation (in a genre this reactionary) happens offscreen: a boy’s coming out to his macho-cop father. Most of the dialogue is lazily by the book, the worst uttered by an ineffectual black detective who might be related to the one in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. “I don’t believe in coincidences, Olivia,” he says after six coeds die spectacularly gory deaths. “We’ll be in touch.”
A bigger problem is that Wadlow — best known for Kick-Ass 2 — is more of an action than a horror director. He doesn’t know how to stage or frame his set pieces for maximum chills, and the PG-13 rating puts a tourniquet on scenes that might only have worked with extra splatter. The central visual horror conceit is especially lame: The demon’s messages are transmitted by characters whose visages take on a tight-grinned, Satanic cast, which Olivia likens to “a messed-up Snapchat filter” but looked to me like the average Hollywood party in which every face has been stretched into a duck mask. The climax builds up some heat but is killed by clumsiness. The ending violates everything we know about Olivia without making her moral about-face the point. I don’t see a new horror franchise in Blum.
Friday the 13th is the occasion for a few scarier offerings as well as one holdover, the overrated but indisputably nerve-jangling A Quiet Place — which is infectious enough that even stray audience coughs make you worry about big insectoid beasties swooping down and carrying you off.
Suzi Ewing’s 10x10 has no supernatural component, but it’s another kind of grisly horror game: two scary people in tight quarters going mano a mano to the death. In the opening, Luke Evans, with an ugly fringe of a mustache, trails and kidnaps peppy redhead Kelly Reilly, locking her into a room in the basement of his house of the eponymous length and width. He tells her that screaming won’t do any good since there are four-foot concrete walls with “soundproofing materials I put there myself,” which I’m guessing doesn’t impress her since she keeps screaming — and clawing and bashing. Much of 10x10 is the two characters bloodying each other up. He’s bigger but only semi-adept. Maybe this is the first woman he has kidnapped. We don’t know. It’s not until the 50-minute mark that he actually says, “I guess you’re wondering why I have you here.”
A critic can’t say much about this movie except it works up a good amount of lather and how much you like it will depend on how surprised you are by its zigs and zags. The explanation for what’s happening turns out to be pretty dumb, but by the time it came I was so caught up that I didn’t care too much. (I cared later, thinking back.) Evans (Welsh) and Reilly (British) are hobbled by having to use from-nowhere American accents, but both can go from bland to bestial in a second flat, and their final, gory grapplings are wincingly well-staged. 10x10 is nothing you need to go out of your way to see, but since it’s available to watch on demand you don’t need to.
The scariest and most vivid of these Friday the 13th releases is Sergio G. Sánchez’s Marrowbone, which you’ll probably have to see on demand — it’s not in theaters in New York, L.A., or many other places. That’s a shame because your monitor or laptop won’t do justice to Xavi Giménez’s stark widescreen compositions and the profusion of dark shadows in which bad entities lurk and good ones cower in fear. Sometimes you can’t tell what you’re actually seeing, and sometimes you’re not supposed to — you’re meant to be only half sure. There’s a lot of narrative murkiness that turns out to be chillingly purposeful.
That’s because the narrator himself is a bit murky. His name is Jack Marrowbone (George MacKay) and he’s pale, handsome, and high-strung — as well he might be since he and his three siblings have been frenziedly whisked from England to coastal Maine by their terrified mother. It’s the end of the ’60s but might as well be the ’30s given how remote the family keeps itself. Their new house is her childhood home, unlived in for 30 years, their new name her maiden one, Marrowbone. Their object is to remain hidden from a father who — we’re led to believe — would do anything to find and harm them. When the mother wastes away to nothing, she makes Jack promise not to let the world know of her death until he’s 21 and can assume legal responsibility for his sister and brothers. “No one will ever separate us,” he vows.
The big turn in Marrowbone comes early, when the father indeed shows up and the film abruptly jumps ahead six months. Now, the dark mood has become darker. The mirrors have been covered — or smashed. The door to the attic is boarded up. The little boy, Sam (Matthew Stagg), has an inkling that a ghost is about. Is it the ghost of the father, who might or might not be dead? The middle boy, Billy (Charlie Heaton, looking like a young Leonardo DiCaprio), keeps demanding to know what’s going on and why only Jack is allowed to travel to town. Billy, Sam, and their sister, Jane (Mia Goth), often huddle in a makeshift fort of blankets, playing games and telling stories, finding comfort in togetherness. The family’s only outside friend — and the object of Jack’s affection — is Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), with whom Jack often communicates in Morse code via flashlights. (Her house is some distance away, on a hill.) Alas, Allie’s rival suitor is a smarmy young lawyer (Kyle Soller) who knows something of the family’s tragic past.
Marrowbone is proof that with a strong sense of place and characters an audience cares about, you can make a good horror movie without games, gimmicks, or even much narrative coherence. Emotionally, we always know where we are, and we trust that Sánchez (known for The Orphanage and the tidal-wave disaster movie The Impossible) won’t let us — or his characters — down. He keeps us grounded, so that even the stalest Gothic devices seem alive and unnerving. His actors’ faces aren’t just interesting, they’re beautiful, especially MacKay with his haunted eyes and fair skin that reddens with every whisper of emotion; Heaton with his faint sense of entitlement, as if he wants to cry out, “Hey, Jack, I want to be the hero!”; and Taylor-Joy, whose wide-apart eyes can make the most ordinary ingénue seem poetically otherworldly. Marrowbone is a good title. It suggests there’s life in dem old horror bones yet.